Feb. 11, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

12th District Race Illustrates Changes in Pennsylvania

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Reps. Mark Critz (above) and Jason Altmire have been working the campaign trail hard in the days leading up to Tuesday's primary.

The late Congressman’s name appears on dozens of buildings in the Johnstown area, from the John P. Murtha Regional Cancer Center to the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport. The lawmaker ushered to town many more projects that don’t bear his name, such as the weapons factory at Nammo Talley Defense.

In a rented warehouse space surrounded by green pastures, dozens of workers construct an over-the-shoulder, disposable firing mechanism, the M72 LAW, to be sold for $2,000 apiece to the Marines. Critz, in an olive suit, studies the production stations as he tours the factory before greeting the employees over delivery pizza.

He’s still uncomfortably self-aware of his role as an elected official. Critz refers to the Congressional pin as a “button” in his southwestern Pennsylvania twang and remarks out loud about his post-pizza heartburn.

“As a Member, your jokes are funnier, you’re more interesting and you’re much more handsome,” Critz told the employees last Wednesday. “In 13 days and eight hours, we’ll find out if I get to keep doing it.”

Later that day, Critz greeted United Steelworkers members during the shift-change at the Gamesa wind turbine plant in Ebensburg — another project attracted to the district by Murtha’s Appropriations Committee clout. Now the workers play a part in Critz’s campaign strategy to drive out his union base for the primary.

But Critz doesn’t even mention he’s running for Congress to the workers rushing through the doors in their Carhartt jeans. As they pass him carrying their Igloo lunch coolers, he utters an understated introduction, “Mark Critz, nice to meet ya.”

These are the types of voters who will keep Critz in office — if they turn out next week.

“He’s Democratic and he also carries the legacy — the torch — for the late John Murtha,” said Michael Katchmer, a 47-year-old USW member and Critz supporter, as he left the plant.

Many local unions made rare endorsements in a Member-vs.-Member race by backing Critz. Some of the same unions supported Altmire in his 2006 and 2008 campaigns but turned on him after his vote against the president’s health care law.

“There are some in the national leadership of unions and some local union leaders who are unhappy with me over the health care vote, and they’ve made that clear,” Altmire said in an interview at his Lower Burrell campaign office. “But I don’t believe that’s going to carry through to all union families in the district.”

Labor unions do not boast the membership they used to in Steel Country. There are about 30,000 union members who are registered Democrats  in the 12th district, according to Tim Waters, the political director for the United SteelWorkers.

When Murtha came to Congress in 1974 — in the prime of Western Pennsylvania’s steel-producing years — the same union had about 150,000 members. Ruth Villa, a retired Democrat and former Murtha volunteer, recalled how the late Congressman would rise early in the morning to greet steelworkers when they arrived at work.

“They can’t [now] because the numbers aren’t there,” Villa, 88, said. “Mr. Murtha went to the mill gates at five in the morning. And I feel strongly, if the mills were still there, Mark would be there.”

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